Does Your Life Have Meaning (1)

An eternal question: Does your life have meaning?

I've asked myself —and God—this question at various points throughout my life, haven't you? It tends to pop up especially during times of challenge, heartache, or frustration—or times of significant transition.

The desire to make one's life count—to want it to matter somehow—is probably universal, not only because most of us prefer to do more good than harm, but also because we feel we need meaning to counterbalance the trials and tribulations that are an inevitable part of our human existence.

The search for meaning was, in fact, a driving force behind this blog when I began writing it several years ago. My husband had retired and I had recently hit the milestone of my 60th birthday. Suddenly it seemed imperative that I really pay attention to my priorities to make sure that whatever time on earth I might be given would be spent in service to something bigger than myself. In short, I wanted my life to mean something!

This seems rather noble, doesn't it?

I felt rather noble about it, too, until I read a recent piece by the much-respected writer/Quaker elder Parker Palmer in his post: “The Big Question: Does My Life Have Meaning?” In it, he reflects on his own mindset shift about the question after reading this poem “Love” by Nobel Prize-winning, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

LOVE
by Czeslaw Milosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Parker Palmer (1939 – )

Parker Palmer reflects, “As I read and re-read it, I began to see that brooding on “Does my life have meaning?” is a road to nowhere. Whether I give myself a thumbs up or a thumbs down, there’s a flaw at the heart of the question — a flaw created by our old nemesis, the overweening ego.”

“Our old nemesis, the overweening ego”

With each re-reading of this poem, I too found myself peeling back a deeper level of meaning and understanding (though I still haven't figured the first two lines of the second verse), and each made me realize how ego-driven I am (how ego-driven we all are). Contemporary writer/philosopher Eckhart Tolle speaks often of the ego and its significant role in our unhappiness and wrong-mindedness. How much better—how much more liberating—it is to let go of the notion that our life matters at all, except for this very moment.

“And whoever sees that way heals his heart…from various ills.”

From what ills might we be healed if we could shed our ego? Perhaps anxiety, shame, embarrassment, stress, paranoia, and self-consciousness. We worry about what others think of us when they are usually not thinking of us at all. “You are only one thing among many,” the poet reminds us.

“A bird and tree say to him: Friend”

Ah, to be as free of ego as the birds and trees! This was reminiscent of the oft-quoted passage from the gospel of Matthew:

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-27 NASB).

Young Man ThinkingWe don't have to figure it all out

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

The older I get, the more I realize we are really living the questions—the mysteries of life—and much of it will never be clear to us on this side of “the veil.” Maybe not ever. So I believe what the poet is trying to tell us is to let go of the need to understand and just be present with what is—right now—and do the best we can with that, trusting that our intention to serve is enough.

If we're completely honest with ourselves, this moment is all we've got anyway. 

I hope you'll read and reflect on this fascinating poem—and read Parker Palmer's thought-provoking post too—and let me know whether it speaks to you at all.

If so, how?

Does it remind you to let go of some of the striving you've been carrying on your shoulders? Does it give you permission to just be—and to savor this moment of being—without worrying about whether it has meaning?

I hope so.

Because if it does, you may well have taken a step towards the most meaningful life you can possibly lead.


More about Czeslaw Milosz

More about Parker Palmer


        

        

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